book report: Sealing Their Fate by David Downing

David Downing's book, Sealing Their Fate: The twenty-two days that decided World War II,

A navy photographer snapped this photograph of...Image via Wikipedia

focuses on the 3 weeks before the bombing of Pearl Harbor but across three main theaters of war and a few minor ones as well. It's an ambitious project but also the kind I'm really attracted to as well. It is hard to appreciate from books focused on only one front, the equally important things happening on another front thousands of miles away during this war. I haven't appreciated before this book that the German army was retreating from the Soviet Union when Japan's planes and mini-submarines were setting the American naval base in O'ahu aflame.

Unlike Terry Brighton's book, Patton, Montgomery, Rommel: Masters of War, which I reviewed in January, Downing has little admiration for Rommel and points to numerous mistakes and poor decisions of Rommel's that only added to his troubles with poor supplies and support. But Downing has little good to say of most of the characters in his history. This quote from the beginning of the epilogue demonstrates his attitude.
There is far too much deference accorded by historians to political and military leaders, most of whom ally average intelligence to above-average doses of the less desirable human attributes. The history of these twenty-two days is replete with stupidity, incompetence, short-sightedness and evil in high place, and remarkably deficient in wisdom, simple competence, far-sightedness or human empathy. Finest hours were thin on the ground. p.330
Downing makes clear that there are no heroes in war, just wounded survivors. The main theaters of his interest are the Russian front, the North African front, and the Pacific theater. But he also follows German ships around the world's oceans sometimes escaping from Allied patrols and sometimes succumbing. He notes the Nazi efforts at becoming more efficient in successive attempts at settling the Jewish problem in the conquered Slavic territories. He lets the horror of the genocide speak for itself and through the voices of survivors.

He recreates conversations from war diaries of the generals, the politicians and the survivors. The point of the battles in these three weeks were the Pyrrhic nature. Pearl Harbor was a rousing success for the Japanese in the short term, but resulted in two nuclear detonations on their soil. The German invasion of the USSR was an amazing example of blitzkrieg until the appalling example of poor logistics planning resulted in German men and machines freezing to incapacity. In the same way, Rommel's brilliance in tank warfare was only as good as a resupply from Italy of tanks to replace the ones lost to England and gas to keep them running. England could keep throwing at them thin-skinned underpowered tanks, which might be sacrificed at ten per German tank, as long as the British could keep replacing and refueling their tanks but Germany could not. Stalin could keep throwing infantry against the Germans, using up their artillery and bullets, knowing that he could supply more men than Hitler, especially since Stalin gave his men warm coats and weapons that could withstand the bitter cold. What a cruel calculus. May the Lord return before we do this again.
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